George Mannes
February 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Who needs Mitch Leary and Travis Bickle when we’ve got John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau — singing their hearts out? That’s right, the most unflinching creative look at what makes assassins tick-tick-tick is a musical. With songs by Stephen Sondheim, 1991’s Assassins explores the tortured souls of nine Americans who took a shot at killing a President. Earning mixed reviews, it ran for only two months Off Broadway, never reaching a wider audience. ”I think most producers, whether they were Broadway producers or video producers, were scared off by the subject matter,” says Jerry Zaks, the play’s director.

You can hear Assassins on an RCA Victor CD, but don’t go looking to rent a videotape of the show. If you’re, uh, dying to see it, the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has a collection of nearly 1,700 performance videos — most, like Assassins, made especially for the archive. Calling the collection ”enormously valuable,” Sondheim says, ”What makes the theater exciting is the uniqueness of each individual performance, but what is disheartening is that they are ephemeral, unlike the movies.”

The Lincoln Center library’s drama collection is only one of the many specialized video storehouses across the country, holding one-of-a-kind artifacts of America’s visual history. All offer on-site viewing of tapes:

*Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications (with more than 6,000 TV shows and 8,000 commercials) and Manhattan’s Museum of Television & Radio are the best-known archives that throw open their doors to nonscholars.

*The Vanderbilt Television News Archive in Nashville has been taping and indexing ABC’s, CBS’, and NBC’s nightly newscasts since Aug. 5, 1968.

*The UCLA Film and Television Archive contains more than 35,000 movies, 130,000 television shows, and 27 million feet of old newsreels.

*Gluttons for punishment can travel to the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma, home of the world’s largest collection (45,000- plus) of radio and TV commercials used in political campaigns.

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